What is the pancreas and why is it important?
The pancreas is a long, flat organ that is located in the abdomen along the small intestines near the right, cranial (front) part of the abdomen. This little organ has big responsibilities in regulating your pet's glucose levels via insulin release, controls digestive secretions, and can even influence certain growth hormones. If part of the pancreas is not functioning normally, it can lead to the development of diabetes or pancreatitis, both of which can be life-threatening for your pet if not medically addressed. Continue reading to learn more!
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Anatomy of the Pancreas
The pancreas is a flat organ located adjacent to the beginning part of the small intestines and sits below the stomach and to the right side of the abdomen. It is divided into the body, right, and left lobes. The pancreas has 3 major cell types, islet cells, acinar cells, and ductal cells. This little organ has effects all over the body, including the digestive tract, liver, and brain, just to name a few!
What does the pancreas do?
The islet cells, also called the islet of Langerhans, are responsible for endocrine functions of the pancreas, such as insulin, glucagon, and somatostatin release. Insulin is released in response to rises in blood glucose (aka blood sugar) levels, glucagon is released in response to low blood glucose levels, and somatostatin can reduce insulin levels, thyroid-stimulating hormone, growth hormone and reduce the number of digestive enzymes excreted.
The islet cells release insulin to break down carbohydrates, fatty acids, and certain amino acids and convert them into glucagon, triglycerides, and proteins for storage. Insulin also controls the amount of glucose that can enter fat cells (adipocytes), liver cells, and white blood cells called monocytes.
Glucagon limits how much insulin can be released from the liver cells (hepatocytes). When the blood sugar levels are low, this allows the body to break down stored energy supplies.
The acinar cells control the exocrine function of the pancreas and produce digestive enzymes. These cell types make up the majority of the pancreas. The acinar cells produce bicarbonate to help neutralize the stomach acid, produce some digestive enzymes, store and produce zymogens, and even help control the bacterial population in the small intestines.
The ductal cells allow the digestive enzymes to exit the pancreas and enter the GI tract. They also excrete bicarbonate, water, and intrinsic factors.
The pancreas is regulated by hormones and nerves. The thought, smell, and actual presence of food material in the small intestines trigger the pancreas to release digestive enzymes through vagal nerve stimulation.
Why is the pancreas important?
If the endocrine function of the pancreas is not functioning normally, it can lead to the development of diabetes mellitus. Please read our article on Diabetes Mellitus for more information on this condition.
If the exocrine function of the pancreas is not working appropriately, it can lead to over-secretion of digestive enzymes and lack of proenzymes to counter it, causing a painful and inflamed pancreas called pancreatitis. Please see our articles on Pancreatitis in Dogs and Pancreatitis in Cats for more information.
If the exocrine function of the pancreas is not working well enough, it can lead to a condition called Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency (EPI). This causes weight loss, diarrhea, and often a poor hair coat since they cannot break down and absorb all the good things in the food they’ve eaten.
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